Opera Personalities in Brazil (Part Two) – Politics, the Kiss of Death: A Rio-Life Study

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Luiz Fernando Malheiro (www.luizfernandomalheiro.com.br)
Maestro Luiz Fernando Malheiro (www.luizfernandomalheiro.com.br)

With major international revivals by a once-neglected Brazilian master, and numerous contemporary offerings of his most outstanding creative works — along with an enthusiastic assemblage of young, native-born artists eager to sing, play, and breathe new life into those same works — can the Brazilian national opera take a firm enough stand in the performing-arts world by overcoming its previous cultural impasse? Not if we know anything about her past political maneuverings, it can’t.

As a twice-wounded, twice-shy victim of Rio and São Paulo’s Machiavellian posturing, the once-embattled Brazilian maestro, John Neschling, went on the record, in a 2001 newspaper interview, to indicate, in appropriately blunt terms, that, “The entity that needs to provide the culture so sorely lacking [in Rio de Janeiro] has to be the state. Similarly, Rio will only have a truly great orchestra when her state and local governments convince themselves that a symphony is absolutely necessary for tourism, and for a city of the First World” — a vastly debatable concept at best.

But the ever-present, double-edged sword that the ruthless game of politics has turned into has had an astonishingly negative impact on even the most respectable of arts institutions, in spite of maestro Neschling’s utopian ideals. Let us briefly consider the following case study, then, of the recent disharmony prevalent at the regally elegant edifice known as the Teatro Municipal of Rio.

São Paulo-born conductor Luiz Fernando Malheiro, who (as of this writing) still runs the Teatro Amazonas Opera Festival, had a brief but tension-filled tenure as music director of the city’s famed Beaux-Arts opera house, where, as it turned out, he ran into a veritable stonewall of nonconformity, due to a change in the theater’s administration, sometime around April 2002.

That change swept into office both a leftist state governor, Workers’ Party candidate Benedita da Silva, and a new boss of the opera board, Antonio Carlos Grassi — strictly a political appointment, according to Amy Radil, a radio and print journalist based in Brazil.

With these shifts in artistic focus came the usual rounds of charges and countercharges, entailing (but not limited to) tortuous budget cuts, eleventh-hour cast substitutions, and spurious threats of season cancellations, as well as endless and protracted grumblings about performers’ exorbitant fees. “We’ll never get beyond artistic mediocrity in our theaters,” a frustrated Malheiro protested to Jornal do Brasil, “as long as they’re subject to these [kinds of] abrupt changes.”

Antonio Carlos Grassi (coisasdeteatro.blogspot.com)
Antonio Carlos Grassi (coisasdeteatro.blogspot.com)

Responding to the conductor’s accusation, board president Grassi, who also happened to be the state culture secretary (and a former television, stage, and screen star to boot), defiantly declared that the “debate is political and ideological. I think the theater has to exist within the cultural context of the state,” inadvertently stealing the now-portentous Neschling’s thunder. Besides which, in Grassi’s opinion, “The last government left an enormous debt. There was no money for the original program, which was ambitious, but very expensive.”

“We live in a country in which crisis returns from time to time,” a member of the opera’s orchestra was heard to complain, “and the arts are always the first ones to feel it.” “It’s ridiculous to make these changes for six months,” griped another. “Then we have to wait for the elections and see who wins… to find out who the new masters of the theater will be.”

These overly-dramatic developments in Rio had all the customary signs of one of those sordid television soap operas Brazilians are so obviously addicted to — in retrospect, it was quite a remarkable show all-around. Upset at the way all parties mishandled this rather unseemly situation, particularly in the local press, Malheiro resolutely upped and quit his post — so much for freedom of artistic expression.

The sudden showdown between the city’s foremost political and theatrical heavyweights had thrown Neschling’s wishful cultural commentary into temporary disrepute. Who, then, should be the ultimate purveyor of high culture in Brazil: the city, the state, or the local opera board? Given the conflicting viewpoints this extremely volatile subject seems to inspire, there has yet to be offered a single set of workable proposals, or a reasonably attractive solution to this chaotic mess, going forward.

Back at the opera, Malheiro’s brave new successor, conductor Silvio Barbato,[1] summed up his own feelings regarding the distasteful situation there, dismissing the misunderstandings as “merely a clash of egos.” Moreover, maestro Barbato went out of his way to praise the “socially conscious imperatives of the current government,” overlooking the glaring fact that it’s the state that “still pays the lion’s share of the [Municipal’s] budget,” to which his own future employment remained indebted and beholden to.

With state and local governments providing the bulk of the funds to ensure their very survival, both the Teatro Municipal and Teatro Amazonas could breathe a collective sigh of relief, as they continue to be allowed to “prosper,” both artistically and culturally, in the modern musical realm — with prosperity the relative term here, denoting a form of financial “stability” most foreign companies would be grateful to receive, as long as these self-same governments kept their own highly-suspect fiscal houses in order (by any means, a tall order, as originally conceived).

Bailing out Brazilian opera houses, however, is not the only answer. But like everything else in the country even remotely related to culture — soccer, Carnival, samba, and the cinema — just keeping the political ship afloat is often all that’s required… for now, at least.

As a final addendum to this convoluted story line, about a year later, in early 2003, the Federal Ministry of Culture, headed-up by the recently appointed pop-star Gilberto Gil,[2] chose Antonio Carlos Grassi to become the next president of Fundação Nacional de Arte.

According to Funarte’s farsighted mission statement, it was charged with the lofty task of “promoting, stimulating, and supporting, throughout all the nation and abroad, the practice of developing and disseminating artistic and cultural activities, in the [primary] areas of theater, dance, opera, the plastic and graphic arts, photography, and popular and classical music,” in addition to “documenting and informing, as well as providing the research into, these same areas… with a view towards the preservation of the country’s cultural memory.”

With respect to the organization’s actual operating budget, “the financial resources for Funarte will originate with the National Treasury, and are approved by the [Brazilian] Congress; [funds] are also provided for by the official government entities, to include foreign or private investments…”

This should be most reassuring to Mr. Grassi, after what he and maestro Malheiro went through at the Municipal. Perhaps one day Grassi can meet up with the fiercely demanding conductor and share a hearty laugh or two about it all over strong cups of black coffee. Together, they can even try to patch up their past differences and let bygones be truly bygones — unless, of course, the maestro’s “cultural memory” has itself been all-too-well preserved.

It Ain’t Over till “You-Know-Who” Sings

It was just as arduous and nerve-wracking, too, in the rough-and-tumble world of big business and high finance, with layoffs, quarterly slashing of earnings, and/or company operating budgets the now-accepted norm. There’s no getting around the unpredictable nature of the Brazilian and American economies either (being what they invariably are). People in the arts professions have had to make do with what little they have, or face obliteration.

Still, as the old saying goes, “When one door closes, another one opens.” In October 2004, the ever-resilient Metropolitan Opera of New York, facing the potential loss of corporate sponsorship of their regular Saturday-afternoon radio programs,[3] went forward with the surprise announcement that Margaret Juntwait, a classical-music host in the city since 1991, had been picked to become only the third announcer (after Milton Cross and Peter Allen) and, remarkably, the first woman, to host the weekly live-opera features.

Margaret Juntwait (Richard Binkhoff)
Margaret Juntwait (Richard Binkhoff)

Her official on-air debut occurred on December 11, 2004, with the broadcast of Verdi’s French-style, five-act opus I Vespri Siciliani (“The Sicilian Vespers”), and continued straight on through to the season’s final transmission of La Clemenza di Tito (“The Clemency of Titus”) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, on May 7, 2005 — the same day, it turned out, that a new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold was set to jump-start the complete Ring cycle at the Amazonas Opera Festival, in the northern city of Manaus.

And just as the saga of the Brazilian Fat Lady had so innocently begun, can we expect it to continue to survive into the new millennium? With tentative assurances (for the time being) of even greater performances to come, what we have learned so far is that not only can the leaner-looking, but still gorgeously tanned, Amazonian beauty sing, she can sing quite well, thank you, missing only an occasional beat or two.

At the risk of changing her “tune” from time to time — that is, from opera to pop music, and from pop music to cinema, then back again, with a little bit of street Carnival thrown in for good measure — she might even be able to quit her day job at some future date.

But in the ever-vacillating economic, political, and sociological atmosphere that traditionally equates itself with the contemporary, still-developing third-world nation of Brazil, however, that date seems far off indeed. ☼

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes


[1] Tragically, maestro Barbato’s conducting career came to an abrupt end in 2009 when it was learned he was among the casualties of the June 1st crash of an Air France Airbus 330 plane, Flight 447, off the northern coast of Brazil’s Fernando de Noronha Islands. The conductor perished, along with all two hundred and sixteen of his fellow passengers and fourteen crew members.

[2] Gil stepped down from his post in August 2008. His parting shots were telling, to say the least: “I hope that these four years were important ones for Brazil and for the world, because many people viewed them with prejudice for their having had a musician for a minister.”

[3] Salvaged, incidentally, a year later by Toll Brothers & Company, “America’s Luxury Home Builder,” and the Vincent J. Stabile and Annenberg Foundations.

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